The apartment in the center of Love life, Koji Fukada’s gentle study of grief and dislocation, is, like the film, compact and practical. A long table, surrounded by a narrow bench and various chairs, occupies the center of the living room. The kitchen is tucked away in a corner. Near the entrance: a bathroom with a short bathtub, a washbasin, a WC. To the rear: sliding doors leading to a balcony overlooking a hideous concrete pitch; a room on the right. Evidence of family life is everywhere: size marks engraved on a wall, trophies, diplomas, children’s drawings, books, clothes on pegs, shoes in a corner.

Taeko (Fumino Kimura), Jiro (Kento Nagayama) and their 6-year-old son Keita (Tetta Shimada) live in this simple space, and the way they interact with it is one of the most uplifting aspects of the latest feature. Fukada footage. With Love lifethe Japanese director pushes the boundaries of themes he’s probed in past films like the comedic Hospitality and the threatening drama Harmonium. Isolation, emotional distance and (mis)communication are all in the spotlight in Love lifethough these topics are tackled with a disorienting but welcome levity, emphasizing the absurdity of family life.

Love life

The essential

A beautifully crafted story of life after tragedy.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Fumino Kimura, Kento Nagayama, Tetta Shimada, Atom Sunada, Hirona Yamazaki, Misuzu Kanno, Tomorowo Taguchi
Director-screenwriter: Koji Fukada

2 hours 3 minutes

Love life is inspired by the song of the same name by Japanese jazz and pop singer Akiko Yano. According to press notes, Fukada heard the song when he was 20 years old and had thought about how to construct a cinematic translation. The 1993 song deals with big proclamations — “No matter how far apart we are, nothing can stop me from loving you,” she croons at one point. Fukada’s film tests this sentiment and explores it beyond romantic love, applying the promise to relationships between current lovers, former lovers, and mothers and their children.

At the start of the film, Taeko, Jiro, and Keita prepare for a celebration – a party for Keita winning an Othello board game, which is actually a surprise birthday party for Jiro’s father, Makoto (Tomorowo Taguchi). Fukada carefully establishes the jagged family dynamic: in one scene, Taeko watches Jiro attempt to organize his co-workers to hold up balloons and signs that read “Congratulations”; his gaze is void of affection. In another, Jiro, stationed by a stove while Taeko and Keita laugh over a game of Othello, complains that the boy never wants to play with him. Taeko, through sign language, encourages Keita to play with his father. Keita laughs and signs that Jiro sucks.

A shared language between mother and son sets them apart from Jiro, who communicates in short “mhms”. When we meet the latter’s parents, the dividing lines become clearer. Makoto and Akie (Misuzu Kanno) have a hard time accepting Taeko because Keita is his son from a previous marriage. Although Akie tries to keep the peace as comic relief, Makoto’s flippant blows escalate into a tense exchange with her stepdaughter.

When Keita dies – he slips and falls in the tub still filled with water – the cracks in the relationship calcify. Fukada depicts the brutal death of the child, a reflection of how tragedy can so suddenly interrupt life.

Grief reveals the truths of this family as each member deals with Keita’s death differently: Makoto and Akie decide to move to the countryside, keeping a promise made to themselves. No longer attached to their apartment on the other side of Taeko and Jiro’s courtyard, they continue their life without fanfare. Jiro straddles the line between his parents’ subdued reaction and Taeko’s overwhelming sadness: having been married to Taeko for a year, he has only known Keita for a relatively brief, albeit intense, period. Nagayama finely captures the vocabulary of Jiro’s heart: the responsibility he feels towards Taeko, the cowardice that prevents him from telling him the truth about his last relationship with Yamazaki (Hirona Yamazaki), that he cheated on with Taeko, and anxiety and self-loathing that freezes his communication.

Unlike Jiro, Taeko is distraught, rendered ungrounded by the loss of her child. Fukada elegantly stages the growing distance between the two, signaling the freshness that seeps into domestic routines. In one particularly striking scene, Jiro, who is selecting photos of Keita for the funeral, asks Taeko to join him. She first sits next to him, but when he asks for older photos of Keita, ones not from last year, she moves to the opposite side of the long dining table before scanning her archives. The apartment is bathed in warm, saturated golden light, but the intimacy of this moment is cold, gray, and dead.

At Keita’s funeral, Taeko’s ex-husband Park (Atom Sunada), a deaf Korean national living in Japan, materializes. After leaving Taeko and Keita without an explanation years ago, the broken father reappears and slaps his ex-wife across the face. It’s a shocking moment, and the first time Taeko, who lets out a shrill sob, shows no emotion. A strangely shaped love triangle forms after Park reenters Taeko’s life. There is no physical intimacy in the relationship between ex-husband and wife, but their emotional closeness, reinforced by the death of their son, and Park’s abrupt decision to apply for social benefits at the office where work Jiro and Taeko, intertwine their lives. Jiro, chasing a mirage of morality, encourages Taeko to help Park.

And she does. But it becomes clear, quickly, that Park is Taeko’s coping mechanism, a vessel into which she can pour her grief and guilt. She lets Park stay in Jiro’s parents’ old apartment and insists – for him, for herself, and for others – that her ex-husband, who is also homeless, needs her. Desperation to be useful, to throw herself into Park’s life, clouds Taeko’s vision, preventing her from realizing her ex-husband’s selfishness.

For the most part, Fukada maintains a steady grip on the story, allowing the relationships between Park, Taeko, and Jiro to unfold at a naturalistic, unhindered pace. It helps that the three central performers – Kimura, Nagayama, and Sunada – seem settled into their characters; there is no stiffness in their representations. The humor — heavily deadpan jokes by the cast, borderline absurd situations — also keeps the film afloat, preventing it from being dragged down by sentimentality.

But there are times when Love lifeThe plot feels too abrupt and obvious, as Fukada relies on convenient, sometimes kitschy shortcuts to get us from one major moment to the next. And while these are perhaps meant to reflect the randomness of life, they go against Love lifeinterrupting the otherwise thrilling spell that Fukada cast.

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